How To Make A Great Book Into A Great Film

The art of adapting a book into a film has always fascinated me. In most cases, it’s a lose-lose situation. Literature and film are different art forms with different strengths, and any attempt to simply film the text will inevitably end up diminishing them both. When adapting a text cherished by many, you nevertheless have myriad crossing expectations to live up to. You are supposed to make a movie that can be understood and enjoyed by people who have not read the original text, while at the same times being true to its spirit, and to the sentimental memories readers attach to it. Finally, you have to make yourself independent enough from the structure inherent in the original text to write a script that is actually filmable. It’s a monumental challenge.

The passionate disappointment of fans of the text is just one aspect, though. If you are prepare yourself for hate mail and disappointing box-office numbers, you should be allright, or at least you’d get through it. Sure, you’d have much preferred universal praise, but, knowing there will always be some haters, you look for something to learn from the experience and move on. But what if the criticism is of a different standing? Say, if the guy who wrote the book you adapted didn’t like it? Now, that must be a little trickier. Many film companies seem to try to get out of this potential bind by asking the author to adapt it himself, or at least function as a producer or a consultant to the head scriptwriter. This can be a good strategy; after all, no one knows more about the heart and soul of the project than the guy who gave birth to it in the first place. The 2002 adaption of Nick Hornby’s novel About a Boy could stand as a good example of the merits of this strategy. Hornby was deeply skeptical of the choice of Chris and Paul Weitz – at the time best known for directing American Pie – as directors, but after he got involved in the scriptwriting process, he said he enjoyed the film. He had every reason to. In fact, all the adaptions of Hornby’s novels have become good movies (High Fidelity, Fever Pitch, About a Boy). I doubt John Grisham and Stephen King can say the same thing.

Then there are those who don’t want to make their books available for movie adaptations at all. I was fascinated by the postscript to the 2003 edition of Gilbert Adair’s novel The Dreamers. The novel was first published in 1988, it was called The Holy Innocents, and Adair admits that he was initially hostile not only to anyone who wanted to make a movie adaptation, but even to the novel itself. In the postscript, he says that he had basically written the novel off as something of a failure, and even instructed his agent to not even contact about new proposals for movie adaptations, just decline out of hand. Luckily, he says, his agent ignored the advice when Bernardo Bertolucci came knocking, and Adair ended up adapting his own novel for the screen. He seems to be very satisfied with it, and he has every reason to be. On the screen, The Dreamers captured the decadence, passion and mildly threatening mood of the story better than the book ever did. It has become a clichê to point to Mario Puzo’s The Godfather in order to claim that the best movie adaptations come from imperfect books, but in the case of The Dreamers, it seems to have been confirmed anew.

But if that’s true, what to do if you want to adapt a text that’s widely considered a classic? Perhaps paradoxically, it seems to be a little easier with older classics. For example, moving them to a more contemporary setting has shown itself to be a good way to give them a new flavor (see: Romeo + Juliet (1996), 10 Things I Hate About You, 1999). The real question, and perhaps the bigger challenge, is what to do with a text that is obviously good but firmly situated, in which the prose is so plain and precise as to seem almost unimaginative? Yet, that’s what director Ang Lee and screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Dana Ossana did with Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain.

In my opinion, few American writers are better than Annie Proulx at exposing a character’s innermost feelings through what he does or doesn’t do rather than what he thinks. Another one of her qualities is her utter lack of literary bombast. It’s not that nothing dramatic ever happens; it’s that she’s so good at keeping the drama at a simmering point that you sometimes have to read a paragraph several times before you realize that something important just happened. My favorite example from Brokeback Mountain is when Jack and Ennis finally give in to their common desires:

“Jesus Christ, quit hammerin and get over here. Bedroll’s big enough,” said Jack in an irritable, sleep-clogged voice. It was big enough, warm enough, and in a little while they deepened their intimacy considerably. Ennis ran full throttle on all roads, whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got on his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours, and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before, but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence, except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s choked “Gun’s goin off,” then out, down and asleep.”

Proulx doesn’t parade her elegance around, even though she could have. Read the second and third sentences again. “They deepened their intimacy considerably,” is wilfully vague but suggestive, and when you read the third sentence, you don’t really know if Ennis appreciated Jack’s initiative or not. Then, suddenly, the roles are flipped. Ennis is the active part, and we learn a lot about him as a character just by how he handles himself in bed (“Ennis ran full throttle…”). The great thing abot the Brokeback adaptation is that it takes this exact show-don’t-tell technique and applies it successfully to another medium. How did they do it? Through writing an excellent script, of course. But there’s also another part of the equation: Heath Ledger.

Holding back – purposefully trying not to tip your hand – must be the hardest thing in acting, because it involves keeping a character mysterious and unpredictable and interesting, while at the same time not so mysterious as to be emotionally impenetrable. Witness that crucial scene in Tom Ford’s A Single Man in which Colin Firth’s character learns that his partner has died in an accident. His desperate effort to keep himself together is excruciatingly sad to watch, but a master class in the art of holding back. It was that same task that was laid on the face and body language of Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. Taking little away from his fine performance, Jake Gyllenhaal’s task was not as complex. Jack Twist is a romantic idealist, someone who in his key scenes is supposed to play off Ennis’ hard-fought silence by expressing his feelings openly. Ledger solves the challenge by letting Ennis express himself physically instead. I’m not thinking about how his stoic temperament sometimes fails him, but specifically how his greatest signals of affection are physical. It’s the sex scene, of course, but also all the hugs and kisses. Everything about him in these situations is passionate and physical, yet whenever he’s supposed to declare it verbally, he fails.

And then there’s his face. The scenes with Ennis and his wife (played by Michelle Williams) radiate with doubt, self-doubt, anger, longing and self-discipline, precisely because Ennis is so inept at sending the signals that will make her suspend her suspicion that he’s having an affair with Jack. He doesn’t quite know how to play that game, and that’s the internal conflict Ledger had to show in his every gesture or facial expression.

It’s no coincidence that I looked to Brokeback Mountain and A Single Man for my examples. At first glance, Ennis Del Mar and George Falconer don’t seem to have much more in common than living in the 1960s and being gay. George is a college professor while Ennis is a rancher. But their problems are essentially the same. The deal with loss and separation, and they don’t know how to get out of it or move. It’s interesting that the movies have applied some of the same techniques, since the books they are based on resemble each other somewhat, at least stylistically. Proulx’s story may at first seem more plot-driven than Christopher Isherwood’s slim novel, but as we’ve already noted, Proulx’s real drama lies in how something is said, not a linear plot line. Likewise, Isherwood’s story, rich on detours, takes as much meaning from Tom Ford’s fetishization of close-ups, starts, stops and fascinations with details, as it does from what scarce action there actually is. Both Ang Lee and Tom Ford respected the different strengths of literature and film enough to know that if you them to draw on another, you have to be sure you have cinematic tools and vision that you need. By doing so, they showed us a way to make texts that seemed so uniquely literary as to be unfilmable into films that have deepened my appreciation of both.

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6 Responses to How To Make A Great Book Into A Great Film

  1. Really interesting post! As a lover of books I always get a bit nervy when I hear one of my faveourites is to be adapted into a movie. Most recently my worries have been concerned with the upcoming move adaptation of On The Road by Jack Kerouc, a classic… but only time can tell!

    Thanks!

  2. jessiecarty says:

    Really good look into the books vs movies issue. I think the Leo and Claire Danes Romeo and Juliet is one of the best examples of adaptations. I have a harder time with Brokeback. I need to see it, but haven’t seen it mostly because I find Annie Proulx’s writing so dry. But, maybe that would work in my favor like you said with The Godfather. perhaps the book/story I like less in print will be better on film? :)

    • queerlefty says:

      Jessie,

      personally I think Proulx is great. I can see how some might find her a little too descriptive and studiously non-spectacular, but I think it suits her the running themes of her writing. It invites a particular, “slow” reading experience which I very much enjoy.

      The film adaptation of Brokeback keeps the best qualities of the short story, at the same time as it is a unique, richly cinematic experience. You definitely should watch it.

      Thanks for your encouraging words, as always!

      • jessiecarty says:

        “Studiously none-spectacular” is probably the perfect way to describe Proulx’s writing style. Just not my cup of tea, but I can see merits in it :)

  3. Smilie says:

    I find the hardest part about adaptations is setting aside ones expectations before seeing the film. That’s the most difficult thing to do. We all have our own unique view of the characters and the scenes in the story that it’s difficult to watch someone else’s interpretation of them.

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